PARIS – It was early August 1978 when I arrived in Iran to work as an administrative assistant in a new private boarding school. Soon, city after city was falling under martial law as the shah cracked down on demonstrations. The revolution, 20 years old this week, was on its way.
I remember the taste of the sugary pears that grew in an orchard belonging to the school’s proprietor, in a valley northwest of Tehran near Karaj, just up the road from the shah’s sister’s palace. I remember the proprietor’s 18-year-old daughter asking me in her charming broken English if I would like to ”sleep” with her in the sun, meaning sunbathing. I remember the wonderful echoing chant of religious men somewhere off in the Persian night while stars lit the valley in the cool air.
Schoolchildren with cherubic faces asked me about life where I came from. In the middle of August — around the time of an Aug. 19 arson attack that killed 400 spectators in a cinema — my high-school-aged Iranian friends whispered to me the name of a savior called Khomeini.
One night I went to a party in the rich northern residential part of Tehran with those same high school kids and found the women standing on one side of the room and the men on the other. On the ride home from that party, my young Iranian companion had a disagreement with the taxi driver over the fare. He broke the driver’s nose, and we ended up at a police station. I remember the silvery steel submachine gun of the policeman at the station’s gates.
I walked home through dark streets while my friend spent the night in the jail. I managed to get off the streets before 5 A.M. That night, the shah imposed martial law, and that morning, Sept. 8, his soldiers were ordered to fire on demonstrators in Jaleh Square, and more than 200 people were killed. Some of the soldiers, it was said, refused to fire on their countrymen and turned their weapons on themselves instead.
I remember being sent the next day on an errand to a hospital, and thinking how big the tanks looked in the streets when you knew they were not there for a parade. I remember the wailing of the women in the hallways of the hospital.
The Iranian proprietor of the school had a plan (which he was dissuaded from carrying out) to house some 200 boys and girls in a single large room, in what was supposed to be an elite boarding school. The crowding would have been not much different from the shah’s housing development under construction beside the Karaj highway out of Tehran, high-rise apartments that went on for miles, one building crammed next to another. Housing was needed for the stream of people coming in from the rural areas.
One who came in from the south was a military man. He arrived one evening at the Tehran apartment of the school’s English headmaster with a child of about 8. He came from a city seven hours’ drive away, and he had to return immediately. He was not known to the Englishman, but he asked him to keep the boy. ”Whatever happens, keep my son. If you leave the country, take my son with you.”
I only understood the full significance of his visit when, after I had left the country, the shah fled in mid-January 1979, Khomeini returned from exile in France on Feb. 1 and overthrew the government two weeks later.
It was a strange, sad time. To a 20-year-old, slightly adrift, it showed that a whole country could be as sick as an individual. When I returned to Canada from Iran in 1978, I felt as if every day was a good one, and any problems I might ever have were of no importance by comparison.
I had grown up thinking that society was a rock. Iran showed us all that a country can fall to pieces in no time.